Mythological heroes have traditionally been associated with extraordinary powers. In Greek mythology the heroes were demi-gods and had superhuman strength. The virtues they extolled were often those of the warrior. Indeed, courage in battle, or in the face of danger, is one of the traits commonly associated with heroism.
Another feature often associated with heroism is that of the “great man” (or woman). By this we mean somebody that changed the course of history. Such heroes can be powerful political leaders or intellectual heroes (geniuses) who made seminal contributions to science and culture. The political hero is often associated with some sort of crisis or fateful decisions he/she had to make in a leadership position. The genius is celebrated because of some important discovery or masterwork.
It should be immediately clear that the two first senses don’t necessarily overlap. You can obviously have “great men”, people of tremendous historical importance, who did not possess any personal courage and faced no personal danger. On the other hand, some great historical figures might have embodied both leadership and courage on the battlefield, conquering heroes such as Alexander the Great maybe.
In addition there are heroes in the literary sense. A hero is simply the central character in a story. However, a hero can also be the protagonist in a typical heroic drama, “characterized by excessive spectacle, violent conflicts between the main characters, bombastic dialogue, and epic personages. The hero is constantly torn between his passion and his honor. If he is able to satisfy the demands of both love and duty, the story ends happily for the hero or heroine and unhappily for the villain. The villain is often a tyrant and usurper with an overweening lust for power or else with a base love for a virtuous woman. Typically, he is potentially or actually guilty of heinous crimes. He is the antagonist to the hero. The hero’s rival in love is sometimes the villain and sometimes the hero’s best friend.” (A Handbook to Literature). Many dramas involving superheroes follow the basic formula of heroic drama in a rather predictable manner.
One might also speak of heroes in a purely conventional way: a hero is simply a person who, for whatever reason, is greatly admired by somebody. In this sense we can have popular heroes such as people who excel at sports (Michael Jordan), or just somebody to whom you owe a debt of gratitude, “My grandmother is my hero”.
In addition we might want to make a distinction between a hero of happenstance and somebody who actually displays uncommon valor. The accidental hero is somebody who unintentionally saves the day, you accidentally trip up the robber as he flees the scene, or you might save the day by doing something completely ordinary that doesn’t require any of the traits usually associated with heroism. The Dutch boy who puts his finger in the leaking dyke until help arrives. He is Johnny on the spot, but anybody in the same situation could have done the same thing; he just happened to be there. (Hook in his analysis of the hero in history distinguishes between an “eventful individual” and an “event-making individual”).
In order to come up with a more precise definition of what makes a hero, it might be useful to look at some of the discrepancies among the different senses of hero we have listed so far. Firstly, we certainly would be reluctant to call all great men in history heroes. Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot all changed the course of history, but they hardly deserve to be called heroes. Even if they displayed some of the virtues we associate with heroism, such as personal courage, perseverance in face of adversity, loyalty to their cause, and personal sacrifice, they were also ruthless mass murderers that took the lives of millions of innocent people. The reason we don’t consider them heroes is plain enough, regardless of their other virtues and accomplishments they were immoral. A wicked hero almost seems an oxymoron. A true hero is a do-gooder, a virtuous person with moral integrity, somebody who is committed to doing the right thing. So, without trying to define what “doing the right thing” is or exactly what moral values the hero must embody, we might agree that a necessary condition for being a true hero is that you are a morally good person. This means that all of the heroic traits listed above, courage, loyalty, perseverance, and self-sacrifice are only heroic if they serve a good cause; a villain could possess all of these qualities and become more dangerous and despicable
However, there also seems to be a problem with the accidental hero that either unwittingly saves the day or does so by performing an action that doesn’t require anything extraordinary. This suggests that 1) the action must be done with the right intention and 2) it must involve further aspects that sets it apart from the performance of mundane actions. So, even if courage and self-sacrifice aren’t sufficient conditions for heroic action they might be necessary. It also seems to be the case that the motive for a truly heroic act can’t be entirely egotistical. It’s not that heroism is incompatible with self-interests, but the more self-interested an action is, the less heroic it is. Somebody who is willing to face great danger for personal gain might deserve our respect but hardly our admiration, and somebody who is willing to take great unnecessary risks deserves neither. Hence, we might conclude that the heroic act must involve an unselfish motive, the intention to do something that benefits others, and involves some form of courage. A person who performs altruistic actions is certainly a good person, but it’s not heroic goodness unless there is some sort of risk involved. When Bill Gates donates millions to charitable causes he is being benevolent but hardly heroic. On the other hand, somebody who is poor, and willing to go without because they give to somebody even more needy can be heroic depending on the severity of their sacrifice.
The willingness to confront danger or hardship is what distinguishes the hero from the merely good person. This distinction is often described as the difference between an obligatory and a supererogatory action. If you fail to do your obligation, then you can be blamed because you have failed to do your duty. A supererogatory act is the one that goes beyond the call of duty. For example, if you do something for others even though you sacrifice, or risk sacrificing, something you value highly, you have gone beyond the call of duty. Therefore, the classical examples of heroism involve the willingness to help others in spite of risk to your own wellbeing (risking your life in the most extreme case). Nobody is obligated to risk their life in order to help others, so if you refrain from doing so, you can’t be blamed. On the other hand, if you do so, then you are doing something heroic for which you deserve the highest praise. We are now in a position to formulate a set of minimal conditions for the heroic action.
A hero is somebody who 1) has moral integrity and is 2) courageous, that is, somebody who is willing to sacrifice or risk something of importance in order to 3) help others.
How should we unpack the first condition? One way is to rely on two traditional attempts to define general moral principles such as utilitarianism and duty based ethics (Kantian. See the link on the webpage). Utilitarians believe that the morally right action is the one whose consequences maximize happiness: the greatest happiness for the greatest number. The Kantian approach focuses on the intention behind the act; it tells you that the right action is motivated by the willingness to act in conformity with the categorical imperative. One formulation of the imperative demands that you 1) never treats somebody as a means only 2) but also as an end in themselves. In a simplified form this boils down to a negative and positive aspect. The first part, the negative aspect, tells you that it is wrong to use other people for your own purposes against their will. If you do so, then you are doing them harm. The positive aspect, the second part, tells you that if possible you should do what you can to help other people realize their goals and live satisfying lives. If you do so, then you’re doing them some good.
Unfortunately, the two formulations can sometimes come into conflict. A utilitarian might be willing to sacrifice innocent lives in order to benefit the many if this course of action maximizes happiness. A Kantian, on the other hand, might reject this option because it clearly violates the negative part of the categorical imperative. However, sometimes Kantians seem too rigid in their approach. For example, even though I promised on everything sacred to me to meet you at 5, I should stop to help a person who has fallen ill in the street. Doing so will make me late and I will break my promise, but helping the person has overall better consequences. To rigidly insist that my first obligation is to comply by the categorical imperative and refuse to break my promise seems wrong.
Life is complicated, so even if both principles capture some of our intuitions about what is morally right and wrong, it is also clear that you can’t apply them in a purely mechanical way. Doing the right thing often requires weighing conflicting demands against each other and sometimes there is no clear answer.
2) The Heroics of Spiderman and Batman
In the Spiderman series, Spiderman confronts a number of ethical dilemmas that relate to questions about what it takes to be a hero. Spiderman is, of course, the protagonist in a heroic drama, and therefore pitted against various villainous antagonists, The Green Goblin, Dr. Octopus, The Sandman, Venom etc. However, the moral dilemmas he faces are in the form of inner struggles. In Spiderman I, Spiderman is trying to come to terms with how to use his newly acquired powers. His uncle Ben admonishes him that “with great powers comes great responsibility”. The moral theme of the movie is Spiderman’s struggle to come to terms with this responsibility. What are your moral obligations if you possess superhuman powers? One radical answer to this question is that you don’t have any such obligations because morality only applies to those who have reason to fear the consequences of breaking moral laws. If you are powerful enough, you are not restrained by the law because you can break it with impunity. In fact, some have argued that it would be irrational of you to obey the law or to be moral in this situation. This position rests on the idea that 1) humans are only motivated by self-interest and 2) any law that can’t be enforced against you don’t apply to you. In other words, might makes right. This is in essence the argument the Green Goblin presents to Spiderman when he offers him to become his partner in crime; it is similar to the argument Glaucon presents to Socrates in the Republic when he tells the story about the Ring of Gyges. Spiderman turns the offer down, but why? Clearly accepting the offer would be immoral on both a utilitarian and a Kantian count. But, the question is why bother being moral in the first place if there isn’t anything in it for you.
The key to understanding Spiderman’s decision might be found earlier in the movie when Peter Parker attempts to make some money on the side by becoming a professional wrestler. He neglects to prevent an armed robbery because he bears a grudge against the victim, the wrestling promoter who has ripped him off. However, the robber subsequently kills his uncle when he flees the scene and Peter feels remorseful. Had he used his powers to intervene earlier, his uncle would still be alive. By making a short sighted egotistical choice, by being irresponsible, he failed to prevent his uncle’s death. The moral is that if everybody made shortsighted egotistical choices all the time, the ramification is that we would come closer to a lawless world where might is right; a world where defenseless and innocent people suffer at the hands of the stronger. The insight is that an injustice any place is an injustice everywhere; in this case the injustice involves the loss of a loved one for Peter Parker. So, the insight is not just the failure to protect the uncle but the realization that allowing one injustice will entail more injustice. So, when Spiderman turns down the Green Goblin’s offer, he might turn down immediate advantages, but what he really turns down is a vision of a world where might is right, because this is a world where those who are weak, including those whom you care about, are unprotected against harm. A world you can’t will to become true (or as Kant might claim: you can’t universalize this principle). In addition, there might be a further reason for Spiderman’s decision. If you attempt do the right thing, you might fail, but you will not fail morally. In other words, Spiderman’s invulnerability might not lie in his spider powers but in his moral integrity. Even if you suffer defeat, even if you’re falsely accused, even if the bad guy gets away with it, as long as you remain true to the principles you believe in, you still have your moral integrity intact and can feel good about yourself.
The notion that it’s important to preserve your moral integrity might also give us a clue to understand what is going on in Spiderman II. Here Spiderman considers retirement from being a superhero in order to improve his private life as Peter Parker. Eventually, his aunt convinces him to come out of retirement because heroism is both inspirational and aspirational. So, it’s not only that true heroism requires some sort of sacrifice, but the example of heroic behavior inspires others to be morally good. Peter Parker realizes that in order to preserve his moral integrity, he must sacrifice personal happiness in order to give other people the belief and strength to follow their moral convictions. Again, it’s not the spider powers and the daring-do, as much as it’s the moral fortitude that makes Spidey heroic.
In the third movie, Spiderman is his own worst enemy when he faces his dark side. He becomes consumed with thirst for vengeance when he hunts down the man whom he believes killed his uncle. He becomes a vigilante when he takes the law in his own hands and attempts to kill the alleged perpetrator. Spiderman’s dilemma is that even if you have a just cause, retributive justice in this case, the goals don’t always justify the means. In fact, Spiderman faces a loss of moral integrity when he gives in to the satisfaction of redemptive violence because he puts himself above the laws he is supposed to uphold. In his fight against evil he is in danger of becoming corrupted himself. Again his sage aunt has good advice. She explains that there is also redemption in forgiveness and a that defining who you are by the hatred of your enemy is a slippery slope that can put your moral integrity in peril.
In a sense, this is the kind of radical evil the Joker represents in the Batman movie The Dark Knight. The Joker is not instrumentally evil, he’s not in it for the money. In fact he seems to be driven by the sheer delight he takes in inflicting suffering on other people. However, it’s not only that sadistic acts of violence are an end in themselves for him, he seems especially perturbed when other people exhibit decent and virtues behavior. Batman and Harvey Dent in particular, with their high standards for moral integrity, draws his ire. He doesn’t want to destroy them physically, he wants to destroy them morally by pushing them into extreme situations where they give up their moral values. He is successful with Dent who becomes Two Face, a psychopath without any moral compass like himself. Radical evil, in the Joker character, is not just pleasure in other’s pain, but the pleasure of seeing moral integrity being corrupted. This makes sense because a world in which moral integrity has become impossible is a world where might is right and world beyond good and evil. In many ways the moral of the stories about the super heroes is about the importance of moral values and the strength it requires to be true to your principles when the chips are down. This type of moral battle, however, is faced by all of us, and you don’t need super powers or fancy uniforms to fight it.